Teachers Aren’t Widgets!

I’ll never forget two kinds of teachers I experienced as a student. A few were incredible inspirations, whose lessons I still remember. A slightly larger number were something else entirely, people who made each day more miserable than the one that preceded it. I think everyone remembers both kind of teachers from their past.

As important as those two types of teachers were, the vast majority of my teachers were in the middle, very effective in some areas and less effective in others. An interesting report by the New Teacher Project called “The Widget Effect” argues that we are making a fundamental error in most school districts by treating all three types of teachers exactly the same way, not acknowledging excellence or addressing weakness. The result? An educational system that doesn’t maximize the potential of its best and brightest and fails to remediate those with potential undermined by correctable weaknesses.

It’s a compelling read. The “debate” about educator quality in this country has become a stale joke—largely conservative critics on one side, arguing that “socialistic” union practices destroy school quality, pitted against union sources who contend that the current system doesn’t provide adequate protection for teachers. Lost in the debate is the fact that most teachers are neither educational superstars that do everything right nor absolute failures who shouldn’t be in the classroom. Most of us are, surprisingly enough, human beings who can improve their performance.

The NTP suggests a Third Way of sorts: the development of better tools to improve instructional effectiveness through targeted evaluation and follow-up. Instead, most schools districts employ an evaluative mechanism that is so blunt and meaningless that every teacher—regardless of her effectiveness—is treated exactly the same way:

  • In districts that use binary evaluation ratings (generally “satisfactory” or “unsatisfactory”), more than 99 percent of teachers receive the satisfactory rating. Districts that use a broader range of rating options do little better; in these districts, 94 percent of teachers receive one of the top two ratings and less than 1 percent are rated unsatisfactory.
  • In fact, 73 percent of teachers surveyed said their most recent evaluation did not identify any development areas, and only 45 percent of teachers who did have development areas identified said they received useful support to improve.
  • The characteristics above are exacerbated and amplified by cursory evaluation practices and poor implementation. Evaluations are short and infrequent (most are based on two or fewer classroom observations totaling 60 minutes or less), conducted by untrained administrators, and influenced by powerful cultural forces—in particular, an expectation among teachers that they will be among the vast majority rated as top performers.

I would hope that no teacher would ever evaluate his students as carelessly as we tend to evaluate the people who are charged with instructing them. In education, we evaluate students not to punish or praise, but to assess their competence in order to develop better approaches to teach them the material. The goal is improvement, achievement, application of knowledge.

When my first grade teacher marked my penmanship “Unsatisfactory” on my first report card, she didn’t walk away muttering that I needed to improve, and my parents didn’t threaten to file a grievance with the Parents Union. My teacher worked with me, developed a plan for improvement and monitored my progress. With my own students, I try to teach writing the same way that Mrs. Markuson taught me to write the damn cursive letter D, through a combination of criticism and praise that is ongoing and monitored. It would be considerably easier to write a letter on the top of each paper, but authentic improvement demands authentic evaluation.

We need to apply that same model to the way that we evaluate teachers. Rating practically every teacher “satisfactory” is worse than pointless: it encourages a mindset that evaluations are just another bureaucratic hurdle to leap at the end of the year. It’s hard to believe that anyone takes them seriously. Specific, detailed evaluations that honestly assess strengths and weaknesses are an excellent first step. When combined with targeted professional development and training to address weaknesses, we’d have a system that would encourage teachers—all of them—to become better. If we believe in the transformative power of “lifelong” education, how can we not believe in that?

Both school districts and teachers share the blame for the current model. The question is whether or not we all have the courage to rethink a model that is as much concerned with avoiding conflict as it is with improving instruction. A specific evaluation, with an honest assessment of weaknesses, might not feel very good the first time a teacher experiences it, but the opportunity to become a better educator every year would more than make up for that discomfort.